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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:59 pm on 9th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Gale Baroness Gale Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues) 5:59 pm, 9th March 2017

My Lords—and Ladies—first I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for bringing this really important debate to mark International Women’s Day. We have had, as usual, a great debate over a wide range of subjects relating to women and girls from all around the world, and I thank all noble Baronesses, and all noble Lords, for their contributions.

The global theme for International Women’s Day is “Be Bold for Change”, as many of us today have mentioned. It is about encouraging ground-breaking action to drive the greatest change for women. The United Nations theme for International Women’s Day is “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030”. It aims at addressing women’s economic empowerment in the context of globalisation and the ongoing technological revolution.

One of the key challenges for women is their low representation in leadership positions. The World Economic Forum produces an annual gender gap index, which ranks countries by the extent to which women and men have equal opportunities. It includes economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. On this index, the UK is number 20; last year, we were number 18. On the IPU ranking, based on the percentage of women in the lower, elected House of Parliament, the UK is placed 47th; Rwanda is ranked first, with 61.3% women. Can the Minister explain why the UK has dropped down to 20th place? What measures would she suggest to improve our ranking? How we can move further up the IPU rankings?

Where there is good representation of women in elected legislatures, it is usually because special measures have been put in place, such as happened in the devolved institutions. In Wales, in the first elections in 1999, the Labour Party had special measures which meant that a good number of women were elected to good seats, and that has continued. We now have 41.7% of Members of the Welsh Assembly being women. In Scotland, 34.9% of the Members are women.

It is 99 years since women were first allowed to become Members of Parliament. In that time, only 456 women have been elected as MPs, compared with 4,738 men. That makes 8.8% women and 91.2% men. In the House of Commons today, there are 195 women, which is 30%, and 454 men, which is 70%. We are improving, but it is all very slow.

The Commons Women and Equalities Committee report published on 10 January recommends that the Government legislate for a minimum of 45% of candidates from all political parties to be women. If that target is not reached, sanctions should be imposed. Will the Minister do all she can to ensure that happens? It should be enacted if the number and proportion of women MPs fail to increase significantly in the next general election.

Next year, we will mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act that gave women the right to become MPs. I am aware there are already plans in Parliament to mark the occasion. Does the Minister agree that, in the week of International Women’s Day next year, we should have more than just our annual debate? Will the Minister agree to have discussions with me and others to see whether we can agree on a good programme of events to mark this occasion in your Lordships’ House, without of course impinging on what is already being planned? I think we could have a great time next year, marking this great occasion. I have to say that 100 years is a long time to wait for women’s equality. We owe it to future generations of women to take positive action now.

Another thing I want to talk about is gender-based violence. The UN recognises this as direct discrimination against women, perpetrated against them because they are women. Domestic abuse, as a form of violence against women and girls, is internationally recognised as a serious violation of the human rights of women and girls. Eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls is essential for the realisation of fundamental rights, equality and non-discrimination. The British Crime Survey for England and Wales reported that there were over 100,000 prosecutions for domestic abuse in 2015-16, the highest level ever recorded. Where gender was recorded, 92.1% of defendants were male, and 7.9% of defendants were female.

Specialist support services for women, such as refuges, are a lifeline for women and girls escaping domestic violence, but women’s domestic violence services are in crisis. Women’s services have seen their funding shrink rapidly since 2010, and one-third of local authority funding to domestic and sexual violence services was already cut by 2012 and even more since. Can the Minister explain why funding is being cut from these vital services which do so much to help and support women and children at a time when they need it most?

I look forward to the Minister’s response, but before I sit down I would like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, on her recent marriage. I am sure that the whole House will join in giving her our best wishes. We wish her and her husband a happy and long life together.